Many Americans are under the impression that gun owners are overcome by fear. This idea is everywhere, in news articles and editorials, scientific research, social media, blockbuster films, and other forms of popular culture. In 1940, Batman claimed that criminals are cowards without their guns – a sentiment he expressed over and over. The popular Western, Shane (1953), told young boys to stay away from guns if they wanted to grow up “strong and straight.” Movies like Friday(1995) and RushHour (1998) suggested that “real men” do not use guns. The New York Times claimed that gun owners are afraid of crime, their neighbors, and their country. The New York Daily News insisted that real men use their fists, not their guns. Scholars in Sociology, Criminology, and Psychology have even linked gun ownership to fears of being victimized. Are gun owners really such irrational cowards?
A new study from sociologists at Florida State University and the University of Arizona attempts to answer this question using data collected through the 2014 Chapman University Survey of American Fears. The data included 1,385 adults aged 18 and older from across the country. To formally assess whether gun owners are more or less afraid than people who do not own guns, the researchers examined an unprecedented range of phobias and fears of victimization. Phobias included irrational fears associated with blood, animals, clowns, drowning, flying, ghosts, heights, public speaking, small spaces, strangers, the dark, and zombies. Fears of victimization referenced muggings, murder, and mass shootings.
The study found that people who report more phobias and victimization fears are no more likely to own a gun than people who report less fear. The only exception to this general conclusion is that people who are afraid of being victimized by a mass shooting are more likely to own a gun. The study also showed that people who own guns tend to report fewer phobias (animals, heights, and zombies) and victimization fears (muggings). While there is little evidence to suggest that gun owners need powerful weapons because they are irrational cowards, there is consistent support for the idea that gun owners are in fact less afraid than people who do not own guns. The results of this study are important because they call into question popular cultural rhetoric about gun owners being generally fearful and weak.
In the end, this study raises several questions. Do guns really comfort their owners, or do gun owners simply have less fearful personalities? Although the researchers observed that people who own guns tend to be less afraid than people who do not own guns, their analyses cannot establish causation. On the one hand, gun owners could be comforted by a powerful means of protection. On the other hand, gun owners could be less afraid before they purchase their guns. For example, having lower levels of fear could facilitate the acquisition of a dangerous weapon. The researchers call for more research to improve our understanding of the ways in which our emotional experiences are structured by gun ownership or vice versa.
This research was published in SSM-Population Health. Benjamin thanks his coauthor, Terrence Hill, for his comments on the blog piece.
Benjamin Dowd-Arrow is a doctoral candidate in the Sociology Department at Florida State University. His current research explores firearms at the intersections of politics, public health, religion, and identity. His dissertation examines the role of Christian Nationalism in contentious policy preference. His publications appear in SSM – Population Health, Public Health Reports, Social Movement Studies, and Men and Masculinities.
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